Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Iceland's Independence Day

Today, June 17, Icelanders celebrate their independence day, on the birthday of Jon Sigurdsson, the leader of the nineteenth-century Icelandic independence movement. Jon was a saga scholar, before he became a politician. He worked briefly at the library in Copenhagen established by the great collector of medieval Icelandic manuscripts, Arni Magnusson.

So it's fitting that, on this day of Icelandic independence, we remember the role of the sagas in setting Icelanders free.

Reading the Icelandic sagas, you learn of Iceland's early days as a free state, from its founding in 874.

Reading the sagas, you learn how Iceland lost its independence in 1262 and became subject to Norway, which itself was later taken over by Denmark.

And reading the sagas--simply the act of reading and rereading them--is what united the nineteenth-century Icelanders, as I learned while researching Song of the Vikings, my biography of the saga master Snorri Sturluson.

Here's how I explained the connection between Icelandic sagas and Icelandic independence in Song of the Vikings:

In 1835 four Icelandic students founded a political magazine in Copenhagen. They printed their manifesto in the form of a poem, which "was exactly what was needed in order to unite the Icelandic people," says Karlsson in The History of Iceland (published in 2000 by the University of Minnesota Press).

The only one of their ancestors it evokes is Snorri:

"... Ah! but up on the lava where the Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge, Althing is vanished and gone.
Snorri's old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys--and the ravens--a feast.
Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers' fame faltered--and died from the earth!"

Four lines of this poem by Jonas Hallgrimsson (translated here by Dick Ringler) are engraved on a plaque now standing on the site of Snorri's booth in Thingvellir, the great rift valley in the south of Iceland where the Althing, the yearly parliament of chieftains, met during the Saga Age.

The Althing reconvened as a national parliament, with Danish permission, in 1845. In 1874 Iceland received a new constitution and, in 1904, home rule. One of its first demands was that Denmark return the manuscripts of the sagas that had been collected--mostly by the scholar Arni Magnusson--and brought to the royal library and that of the University of Copenhagen in the early 1700s. The Danes declined.

In 1918 Iceland became a sovereign state in a "personal union" with the Danish king--much like the situation in 1262, when the chieftains swore oaths of loyalty to King Hakon the Old. For its coat-of-arms the new nation turned once again to Snorri.

King Harald, Snorri wrote in Heimskringla, was angry at the Icelanders, who had composed lampoons about him. He ordered a "troll-wise man" to spy out the country's defenses. Disguised as a whale, the wizard swam close to Iceland’s eastern shore: "Then came a great dragon down from the dale" and "blew poison at him." He swam along the north coast, "but there came against him a bird so big that its wings neared the fells on both sides of it." The wizard-whale fled to the west: "Toward him came a great ox that waded out in the sea and began to bellow horribly." Swinging wide, he swam south, "but against him there came a great hill giant who had an iron staff in his hand and bore his head higher than the fells." King Harald was dissuaded from attacking. Iceland's coat-of-arms bears a dragon, an eagle, an ox, and a giant.

The Icelanders repeated their demands to "bring the manuscripts home." The Althing passed resolutions in 1930 and 1938, then their literary quest was interupted by World War II. In April 1940 Denmark was invaded by Germany; a month later Iceland was occupied by the British, one result being Iceland’s final break with Denmark. The independent Republic of Iceland was established at Thingvellir in 1944; in 1947 the Althing resolved, once again, to "bring the manuscripts home."

This time, Denmark formed a committee. In 1961 a list of manuscripts was drawn up, and Iceland agreed to give Denmark twenty-five years to deliver them. Ten years later—after being photographed and conserved—the first set steamed into Reykjavik harbor aboard a Danish coastguard cutter. Thousands of Icelanders stood by the docks. Thousands more watched via the first live outdoor broadcast of the state television station. Eventually 1,666 manuscripts and over 7,000 charters (1,350 of them originals, the rest copies) were returned from Arni Magnusson’s collection—slightly over half of it. Another 141 manuscripts were sent home from the Royal Library. The last arrived in Iceland in 1997.

"People still say: 'We want to see the manuscripts,'" wrote Gisli Sigurdsson and Vesteinn Olason in The Manuscripts of Iceland in 2004. The manuscripts "are at one and the same time the repository of medieval Icelandic culture and its visible symbol." They are Iceland's "main source of pride."

If you are in Iceland, a fitting way to celebrate June 17 would be to visit the Settlement Sagas exhibition of the Reykjavik City Museum.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

An Old Story, A New Saga

Monday was the official publication date of my young adult novel The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler. It's been a long time coming.

I can still remember where I was when I read my first Icelandic saga. It was Njal's Saga, in translation, and I was at my aunt's house for Thanksgiving during my second year in college in 1978. I was sitting on the staircase, hiding from my family so that I could continue reading this book that had enthralled me. I went on to learn Old Norse and I started visiting Iceland at least every other year beginning in 1986.

For 20 years, however, I made my living as a science writer for a magazine published by Penn State University. I used to say I led a double life-science by day, sagas by night. One day in 2002 I was sitting at my desk at the university when a professor called. He was among a team of archaeologists who had discovered a Viking Age longhouse on a farm in northern Iceland.

I asked, "Which farm?"

"Glaumbaer," he said.

I was probably the only science writer in America who would reply, "You mean the farm of Gudrid the Far-Traveler?"

That was the genesis of my first book about Gudrid, a nonfiction book called The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, published in 2007. (You can read the article I wrote about the Penn State professor's work here.)

I had been looking for a way to combine science and sagas for a long time, and initially I thought I was writing a book about new techniques in archaeology using the story of Gudrid as an example. A few years into the project, my editor at Harcourt suggested I turn my idea inside out and write a book about Gudrid using archaeology as one source.

To do so, I had to study in depth the two sagas that mention Gudrid, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red, collectively known as the Vinland Sagas. These two sagas had never been my favorites.

Once I mentored a Penn State student for an independent study project on the sagas. He compared Gudrid to the women in several other sagas, and wrote: "Gudrid has one great shortcoming-she's rather bland. ... Many of the other sagas tell us enough about the characters that you get a good feel of how people lived their lives-and they are often interesting lives. Gudrid has none of these particularly intimate displays of her dealings with others-it's just assumed that she's smart and well-behaved. Being smart and well-behaved probably spells out being boring."

The more I studied the Vinland Sagas, however, the more I realized that Gudrid wasn't bland or boring--and probably not even well-behaved. These two sagas were simply written in such a way that Gudrid's story was hidden. That intrigued me.

One of the more frustrating things about these two sagas is that they contradict each other. In one saga she has two husbands, in the other she has three. In one saga she is rich when she arrives in Greenland, in the other she is poor. It was impossible, when writing nonfiction, to create a coherent narrative about her.

Also frustrating are the hints. According to one saga, Gudrid "knew how to get along with strangers." Later, that saga shows Gudrid in the New World, failing to communicate with a native woman. The implication is clear: If she couldn't get along with these strangers, no one could. Perhaps Gudrid decided the Vikings should abandon their colony.

Perhaps the Vinland expedition itself was her idea. She packed up and set sail there twice-with two different husbands. Although the sagas disagree on the particulars, her hand in the preparations each time is clear.

Writing nonfiction, I could only say "perhaps, perhaps." When The Far Traveler came out in 2007, I was very happy with it, but I didn't think it was finished. I immediately began thinking about writing a novel so I could bring Gudrid's story to life or, as one of my writer friends put it, "make it real."

Researching and writing my nonfiction book The Far Traveler took me, off and on, five years. Writing The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, my just-published historical novel, took me another eight years--even though all of my research was essentially done.

The biggest problem for me was genre: Who was I writing for?

In 2009 I began reading young adult novels--probably because my best friend, Linda Wooster, became the librarian at a local high school and started recommending books for me to read. One that I liked very much was Hush by Donna Jo Napoli, which told the story of the character Melkorka from the Laxdaela Saga. Reading it convinced me that the best audience for Gudrid's story were readers Gudrid's own age when she went exploring: between 14 and 21.

So I decided to learn how to write young adult fiction. One day I was talking to Andy Boyles, the science editor at Highlights for Children, who had bought a few of my nonfiction pieces, and he told me about a writer's conference at which Donna Jo would be a mentor. With the help of a scholarship from the Highlights Foundation and a Career Grant from the National Association of Science Writers, I signed up. I had three sessions with Donna Jo in which she helped me to structure the novel. She also gave me an invaluable gift: a deadline. If I finished a draft of the novel by a certain date, she would read it; if she liked it, she would send it to her agent.

I met Donna Jo's deadline. She liked the novel, but her agent did not. So the next year, I signed up for another workshop through the Highlights Foundation, this one with the editor who eventually published the novel, Stephen Roxburgh of Namelos. For one intense week, Stephen went over with me everything I needed to improve to make the novel publishable, and over the next year he checked in with me about once a month to see if I was making progress. He even came to my house for a visit.

Without these wonderful mentors The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler would still be in my closet where, I'm afraid, lie several other unfinished novel manuscripts. While making Gudrid's story come to life has been very satisfying, I find it is much easier to write nonfiction and simply say "perhaps."

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler has been chosen as the 2015 INL Reads! selection of the Icelandic National League. Thanks to Rob Olason of the Icelandic National League, whose questions prompted these recollections.